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Thursday 29 September 2016

Black card should stop dark arts

Sledging and provocation systematic nowadays

Eoghan O’Gara receives a red card from referee Ciarán Branagan during the All-Ireland SFC quarter-final against at Croke Park. Photo: Daire Brennan/Sportsfile
Eoghan O’Gara receives a red card from referee Ciarán Branagan during the All-Ireland SFC quarter-final against at Croke Park. Photo: Daire Brennan/Sportsfile

For some reason, we used to play regular challenge matches against a particular team from Ulster.

Fixtures which were, it seemed, suitably important to them to identify me as an ideal recipient for the sort of attention that dominated the conversation after last Saturday's All-Ireland quarter-final double-header.

The usual.

Mouthing. Goading. General rough-housing. Not really my thing.

This time, we played our old buddies in St David's in Artane and the directive from our management was: if Alan comes in for a hard time in this game, everyone gets stuck in.

Sure as anything since night began following day, it all kicked off and within no time, the ref decided he'd better things to be doing with his evening that standing in the middle of this nonsense, trying to figure out who started it and who tried a bit too hard to end it. He abandoned the match.

They were simpler times. The lads weren't exactly cunning about how they went at me and we hadn't been particularly cute in how we all bailed in.

Now, it's far more systematic.

Are players given instruction from management to go after Diarmuid Connolly and try and get him to react?

Is the same thing happening to Seán Cavanagh, Aidan O'Shea and Michael Murphy? Probably.

Antagonism

Physical aggression and antagonism is the big issue here.

Sledging isn't nice, but it's the less ugly of football's evils just now, I think.

There's a perception out there that a marker sidles up to a forward replete with an oration about his lineage or the nocturnal habits of some member of his family.

Mostly though, it's just some fella rabbiting on. Trying to get you out of your thought process. Trying to distract you.

Nothing was ever said to me about my family but the thing was, I never usually engaged. So fellas quickly realised they were wasting oxygen.

For that reason, as my career went on, it happened less. A fella won't put that much energy into getting you to react if he doesn't think he'll have any joy.

It's the same with Bernard. You rarely see Bernard being targeted.

Rough tackling?

There's guys out there only waiting to see if they can get a hit on him that might force him to think again about whether he really wants to be showing for the next ball.

Yapping after he kicks a wide or rubbing it in his face? Absolutely.

But Bernard doesn't react either. He's not interested. So largely, it's a waste of time.

Part of the reason Diarmuid Connolly is targeted is because he's the most gifted footballer in Ireland.

But another, more relevant, part of the reason teams go after Diarmuid is because it has been profitable for them to do so in the past. He's been sent off more often than most forwards.

But it happens. And it's accepted and it goes on because referees don't punish it and because players don't speak about it afterwards.

Mouthing isn't the only way you can annoy a fella.

At the weekend, you could see Lee Keegan at Cavanagh. Every couple of steps he'd take, Keegan would step across him.

It's niggly and it's deliberate and it's frustrating. And whatever happened at the start of the second half, somebody instigated it.

It was in an area of the pitch where an umpire should have had a clear view and if he's being vigilant, he can clearly ascertain who started it and should then recommend that player be black carded or, at the very least, booked.

But then again, we should be careful what we wish for when it comes to increased participation from linesmen and umpires.

Eoghan O'Gara's sending off was ludicrous. But in this, the system failed. Ciarán Branagan didn't have any other choice.

Summoned

He didn't see the incident but he was summoned by his umpire who, when you look back at it, didn't raise his hand until Neil McGee went in and protested about the 'hit' - and I use that word extremely loosely.

So the referee is going on the word of his umpire, who seemed to be acting on the instruction of Neil McGee.

Hardly an ideal chain of command.

So do umpires get involved whenever they see something worthy of notification for the ref? Are they to be discerning?

Are they trained how and what to spot? Are they given a directive by the ref? Or by Croke Park?

It's not entirely obvious from what we've seen this year whether there's a system. But one thing is absolutely certain; referees can't see what's going on in the other half of the pitch and they need as much competent help as they can possibly get.

We need both directive from Croke Park to referees to show a black card when players sledge and we need brave refs to just dish out the punishment and be done with it. If that means putting a high-profile fella off in the first couple of minutes of an All-Ireland semi-final or a final, so be it.

Let these forthcoming All-Ireland semi-finals be the sledge-less games and set a precedent at inter-county level that these dark arts aren't acceptable.

It hasn't just crept in, as some have made out, but it's at its most visible right now and the optics are fairly horrible. It's an attitude thing that needs changing.

I was talking about this very subject with my Mam the other day and she reminded me about a League game I was playing for the club a few years ago.

I was getting a fair old time of it off the ball and she asked the referee at half-time what the story was.

Why was this going on and what he m ight do about it.

"Sure, he's a county player," the ref replied.

"He can handle it."

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